Saturday, 24 June 2017

Square Foot Gardening - Growing Perfect Vegetables

I have to be honest and say that this book is not what I expected.

I am familiar with the Square Foot Gardening (SFG) technique, which has apparently become quite popular in the USA (though much less so over here in the UK, I believe), and in theory it is a technique that should appeal to me - an orderly, disciplined way of gaining the maximum yield from a small piece of ground, with the minimum of effort. This is what I thought the book would be about, but it isn't. There is a very brief introduction to the SFG technique at the beginning of the book, but the vast majority of the book is devoted to understanding when a vegetable is "ripe" - i.e. ready to be picked - and also (curiously) what to look for when buying vegetables in a shop / market. 126 pages are devoted to "Ripeness Listings", vegetable by vegetable. Each vegetable has at least one photograph, and approximately half a page of text, devoted to it.

There are basic tables indicating sowing / planting and harvesting times for each vegetable, shown mostly in relation to first / last frost dates, but precious little about actually cultivating it. In view of the title of the book, I find this disappointing.

Chapter 3 at the end of the book has a couple of short sections covering "Care and handling", "Short-term produce storage at a glance" and "Kitchen Wisdom", but they are extremely superficial. Who needs to be told that cucumbers are best stored in the fridge, but potatoes aren't?

Oddly, considering the title of the book, there is a complete chapter entitled "Outside the box", devoted to things that would not normally be practical to grow in an SFG bed, such as fruit trees (including exotics like durian, lychee, papaya and coconut!).

The real odd one out in this section is the kohlrabi which I would have thought would be fine for SFG - especially since Brussels Sprouts are reckoned to be so. The main emphasis of this chapter is understanding what to look for when buying these fruits / vegetables ("In the Market") and how to store them at home to enjoy them at maximum ripeness ("Extending Ripeness"). There are a few quirky bits of advice in this section which might just work - like storing pears at a temperature just below freezing for a couple of days to help them ripen. I've not heard this before, but it might be worth a try.

Interspersed throughout the book are little sections like "The 10 healthiest ripe fruit and vegetables" and "10 incredibly beautiful ripe fruits and vegetables" - with photos to match of course. I don't really think these sections add much - they are too subjective - but if you like looking at nice photos, then they are OK!

In fact, perhaps the best aspect of the book is that it includes lots of really good, clear photos. They are not always to be relied upon though - one the photos of "Flat-leaf Parsley" on page 69 is definitely of coriander / cilantro.

My personal opinion is that this book has little to offer for the serious gardener, and I find its title misleading. I suggest instead "A guide to selecting and storing perfect fruit and vegetables" - omitting all reference to SFG, which is not really relevant to this subject. Overall, a disappointing book, which seems to me like a jumble of miscellaneous bits and pieces.

P.S. I should point out that the book is aimed at the American market, and uses U.S. spelling and names - e.g. "Scallions" as opposed to "Spring Onions" and "Eggplant" as opposed to "Aubergine".

"Growing Perfect Vegetables" is published by the Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc. Price in the UK is £11.99.

Disclaimer: This book was provided FOC for review purposes.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Chilli progress report

Following on from my post yesterday about harvesting my first chillis of the year, here is a more general update on how my chillis are performing.

Well, obviously the "Cayenne" and that unknown "Turkish" variety had done well to produce big fruits already - even if I didn't let them ripen.

The theory is that since I have taken an early crop of their fruit, those plants will react by producing a second set of flowers, resulting in an overall higher yield. Actually, I have two "Cayenne" plants and they both had more flowers and fruits on them, in addition to the ones I picked.


The unknown (possibly Turkish) plant is the tallest of this year's plants - rather gangly and sparsely foliated:

Most of the plants are now either flowering or setting fruit. This is "Aji Benito", a compact bushy specimen which looks as if it will produce a big crop.

"Aji Benito"

"Aji Benito"

And this is "Fidalgo Roxa".  It has very attractive dark stems and foliage.

"Fidalgo Roxa"

Look at that, four flowers/fruits from one node!

"Fidalgo Roxa"

My two "Aji Limon" plants demonstrate quite nicely the effects of pinching-out, which I described a couple of weeks ago. The unpinched one has a tall stem, which has now branched naturally at a height of about 12in / 30cm, and has some small secondary growth at the base:

"Aji Limon", unpinched

The other, pinched-out, one has no "top growth", but four big strong sideshoots emanating from near the base:

"Aji Limon", pinched

Significantly, it is also starting to produce flowers - before its "natural" sibling.

Flower bud on "Aji Limon"

The same is happening with my two "Cozumel Fat" (nickname!) plants, even though they are much smaller:

2 x "Cozumel Fat"- left one has been pinched-out

Strong new basal growth on the pinched-out "Cozumel Fat".

The Hungarian chilli whose seeds were kindly sent to me by Jeff English is looking a lot better now, after a slow and shaky start. It doesn't look as if it will ever be a big plant though.

"Hungarian, small, red"

My "Ring of Fire" plant is slow to flower again. I had been told that this was an early one, but based on this year and last year's experience, I can say that this is definitely not so!

"Ring of Fire"

This particular plant seems to be very attractive to Ladybird larvae. Today I counted 7 larvae / pupae on it.

The "Challock Chilli" looks superficially very similar to the "Ring of Fire":

"Challock Chilli"

It has several beautiful plain white flowers, but none have set fruit yet.

"Challock Chilli"

The very hot conditions we have had just recently have evidently suited "Panama 6" (another nickname, of course), which has had a growth spurt. This plant (possibly a Habanero of some sort) was grown from seed last year and over-Wintered. It has grown very slowly up till now, but it is beginning to look more promising.

"Panama 6"

One of my Jalapenos is doing fine, but its sibling is still curiously much less enthusiastic:

Both of these are "Jalapeno"

The "Redfields Orange" (nickname) remains absolutely tiny, but even it has some buds now. I wonder how big (small) the fruits will be?!

"Redfields Orange" (possibly a "Demon" type)

Well, that's the state of play for now. Judging by the BBC weather forecast, we are due for about 10 days of much cooler weather now, so my chillis will be less happy, but at least most of them have developed into reasonably strong plants by now, so they should be able to cope.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Pickled Green Chillis

I'm not normally a fan of pickled veg, but I make a few exceptions. One of these is pickled chillis.

Last Summer, Jane made some "Jeruk Cili Hijau" (Pickled Green Chillis), following a recipe in Ping Coombes' book "Malaysia. Recipes from a family kitchen". Despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed them. This year we are making the same pickle, and starting early!

This is my contribution to the enterprise - providing the chillis:

The dark green ones are "Cayenne", but I don't know what the lighter-coloured ones are. They look like those Turkish ones I grew a couple of years ago, which were big but quite mild even when ripe.

The recipe (which makes one jar) calls for 165g of fresh chillis and fortunately that is just about exactly what these ones weighed - no adjustments to the recipe were necessary.

For copyright reasons I won't reproduce the recipe here, but suffice it to say that in addition to the chillis it only requires salt, caster sugar and distilled white vinegar. A really simple recipe, but very effective!

Here is the finished article:

Ping Coombes says her grandmother used to love these pickled chillis with wan-tons, but I can assure you they go with Beef Rendang, Singapore-style noodles and Nasi Goreng as well as with many Western-style meals too, such as pizza.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

A comparison of some Early potatoes

As regular readers will know, I like to grow a few of several different potatoes every year. I have a few favourite ones that appear on the list year after year, but I also like to ring the changes and try some different ones each time as well. I thought it might be interesting to compare how some of them have performed.

In the last couple of weeks I have harvested all my First Early types. They were all grown, 2 tubers to a pot, in containers approximately 30cm in diameter and 35cm depth, using ordinary soil from a dismantled raised bed. I used no compost this time, but I did add to each pot a handful of "Growmore" general-purpose fertiliser and a handful of pelleted chicken manure.

The varieties I grew were Belle de Fontenay, Accord, Lady Christl, Juliette, International Kidney and Orla. The first 4 of those were planted on Mar 11, and the last 2 on Mar 23.

First to be harvested (3rd June) was Belle de Fontenay. The harvest was not huge (533g), but the potatoes were very fine - pale oblongs with smooth unblemished skins. When cooked they were light and insubstantial, very nice indeed.

Next up was Accord, harvested on 12 June. The fact that I didn't even photograph them says a lot - I was disappointed with them, especially since the Belle de Fontenay had been so good. Accord produced a small number of tubers which were very variable in size. They included four huge ones, about the size I associate with a baking-potato, not a new potato. When cooked (boiled) the texture was very dry and rather unpleasant. In retrospect they might have been better baked! We initially ate only half of the ones we had cooked, but we re-cooked the remainder the next day, frying them with some bacon and they were better the second time round.

My faith in New Potatoes was restored on 15 June when I harvested the Juliettes:

They yielded 1.28kgs, with 52 tubers of a useable size. The tubers themselves were lovely and clean. When cooked the flesh was firm but tender. I think this is a perfect salad potato. I say this with authority because I often eat any leftover potatoes, cold. If you are unfamiliar with this one, think of it as being very similar to Charlotte, which I'm sure everyone knows.

19th June saw me harvesting Lady Christl.

This pot yielded 922g. Again the tubers were very nice, clean and regularly-shaped. My only complaint is that when boiled many of them split. Thinking about this, I realise that in the past I have advocated leaving the potatoes for three or four days after harvesting before eating them, to allow the skins to harden-up a bit, which seems to help prevent them splitting. I must practise what I preach!

In terms of quality, I would rate Lady Christl as 7/10, behind Belle de Fontenay at 8/10 and Juliette at 9/10.

Following my own advice about letting the skins harden, I dug up two more lots on 20th June. What a disappointment! The first one was Orla (incidentally a type that can also be grown as an Early Maincrop because it can get pretty big). Initially the crop didn't look too bad, with a decent number of good-sized tubers. Weight was 790g.

When washed though, it was a different story. Many of the tubers had a fair bit of Scab on them. This is a disease often associated with excessively dry soil, lacking in organic matter. I hold my hand up to this, because as mentioned earlier, I used simple garden soil. However, most of the other varieties did OK in it. Next year (as long as I can find some good compost) I think I will revert to using either 100% compost or perhaps 50/50 soil/compost mix.

Scab looks bad, but fortunately it is only skin deep, and if you scape or peel spuds affected by it they will be fine. No prizes on the showbench though...

The second variety harvested on 20 June was International Kidney. This is the type marketed as Jersey Royal (officially only if grown in Jersey, of course). When I tipped the pot out I saw straight away that it was seething with red ants, and the soil was very dry. These are probably reasons why the tubers were poor:

They were mostly lumpy and mis-shapen and deeply pitted with Scab. Not a pretty sight! Weight was only 709g.

Considering the high profile of International Kidney / Jersey Royal, you could reasonably have expected this variety to have been the best of the bunch, but it wasn't, it was the worst. I must say that I was quite surprised that mine didn't have any of the loose skins that normally characterise this variety. Maybe they only go like that when grown in sandy Channel Island soil - and with sea air?

Anyway, looking back on the six potato varieties I have harvested so far, I rank them in this order (best at the top of the list)
Belle de Fontenay
Lady Christl
International Kidney.

To be honest though, at the time of writing we have not tried the Orla or International Kidney ones yet, so maybe taste and texture will compensate for poor appearance.

In 10 days or so I will start harvesting my Second Earlies. I'll let you know how they perform.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


Some of my vegetable crops have passed significant milestones in their development this week.

For instance, the "Boltardy" Beetroot have discernible swollen roots now. [This photo is zoomed, btw.]

The Courgette plant has opened its first flower, a female. None of the male flowers look ready to pollinate it though...

My "Long Red Florence" onions, grown from seed, are finally beginning to show some signs of redness, though you do have to look closely to see them.

The first Runner Bean stems have reached the cross-bar of their support-system, 8 feet above the soil level, and I have pinched them out in order to promote the formation of side-shoots lower down.

And further down the plants the first flowers are beginning to show some colour.

Almost all the tomato plants, with the exception of some of the Beefsteak types, have set lots of little fruit. This one is "Costoluto Fiorentino".

For several days now we have been experiencing hot, dry weather ("Hot" means 25C + in these parts!), and the longest spell of over-30-degree temperatures for more than 20 years. This has certainly helped the plants to grow quickly, but it has also brought with it the need to do lots of watering. I have many of my plants in pots and containers, which do tend to dry out very rapidly, so they need watering every day (sometimes twice) when it is hot like this.

Just a few tips on this theme:

1. Plastic pots tend to be better than terracotta ones, because they are not porous and therefore retain moisture better. However, the loss of water via evaporation can also be useful because of its cooling effect!
2. It's best to water in the evening or in the very early morning, so that water loss via evaporation is minimised, and the plants have time to make use of the water you give them.
3. If possible, equip your pots with saucers, which retain some of the water which would otherwise just run away and be wasted. Like these:-

4. Whether using a watering-can or hose, make sure that you water the roots of the plant not the leaves.
5. It's better to water more copiously but less often, so that water has the chance to penetrate down to the roots of your plants instead of just dampening the surface of the soil / compost.
6. If you are short of time for watering, try to concentrate on the plants that are most in need - ones which will suffer very quickly if not kept hydrated - e.g. the cucurbit family.
7. Another strategy for the time-strapped gardener is to make a rota (be it written or mental) for which plants get watered when, so that everything gets a turn and you don't just water the same few plants every day.
8.[Added to my list because I have just been watching a Starling drinking from my bird-bath] As well as watering your plants, don't forget to provide water for birds and animals, who need it for drinking and for bathing (I'm sure they feel the heat just like we do...)

Monday, 19 June 2017

Harvesting Broad Beans

Yesterday I picked the majority of the pods from my first row of Broad Beans.

These are the "Witkiem Manita" ones, a row of 12 plants. This batch amounted to 2.23kgs. Put that together with the batch of 500g I took a few days previously and I think it adds up to a decent crop, especially since there are still a few more pods to come.

Knowing when to pick the pods is a matter of experience. I gently squeeze a few of them when they look ready, to see what they feel like. If they are tight and firm, then they are ready, but if they are soft and pliant there is still room for growth, and the beans inside will probably be very small. If in doubt, pick just one pod and open it to see what's inside. However, you don't want to leave the pods too long, because over-mature Broad Beans are floury and unpleasant to eat. In my opinion it is better to have a smaller harvest of tender young beans, rather than a bigger harvest of old tough ones.

I normally reckon that a two-person serving of Broad Beans is about 500g (before podding), so this batch of over 2kgs will do us for four meals. Fortunately they keep well, especially if stored in a Stayfresh bag in the fridge. It is better to harvest the pods at the perfect stage and store them than it is to leave them on the plants, where they will continue to grow.

I have another row of beans coming on too, which are not ready yet.

They were sown a month later than the first row, but they have caught up a lot and they will be ready for cropping in about a week or ten days. Four of the plants in the second row are "Witkiem Manita" like the first ones, but the other eight are an unknown variety. They look as if they are a Longpod of some sort, with longer slimmer pods. "Witkiem Manita" usually has four or five beans in a pod, but Longpod varieties typically have seven or eight. This is one of the "Longpod" pods:

The second row of beans has not produced so many pods down low on the plants, but up at the tops they have really excelled, with a high proportion of flowers setting pods.

By the way, have you noticed that I used my personalised trug for harvesting the beans?

It was a birthday present from Jane. I haven't used it till now because it is very big, and the meagre harvests I have had so far would have been dwarfed in it! Hopefully it will be fully utilised when the Runner Beans come on stream in a few weeks' time....